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Friday, December 22, 2006

Venezuela politics: One-party state?


Hugo Chávez has wasted no time since his December 3rd re-election and is pushing ahead with one of his top priorities. He has announced the dismantlement of his Movimiento Quinta República (MVR) movement in favour of a single socialist party that will unite his supporters and coalition partners. In so doing, he will further consolidate his control over Venezuelan governmental, political and other institutions. But he could irk some of his allies in the process, and give his opponents further cause to denounce his authoritarian ways.

The huge size of Mr Chávez’s victory—by a margin of more than 26 percentage points—over his opponent, Manuel Rosales, in the December election has emboldened the president to further augment his power. Besides his total control of the legislature (thanks to the opposition’s boycott of congressional elections in December 2005), he also has a firm grip on the judiciary, the armed forces, the state oil company and other public entities.

Now, Mr Chávez wants to deepen his socialist-nationalist revolution (his “Bolivarian revolution”) by further increasing state intervention in the economy. He has hinted, for instance, of more takeovers of private property, including possible nationalisation of utilities.

Politically, he aims to lead a new, more powerful vehicle to more efficiently implement his vision of “21st-century socialism”. He says that the plethora of parties (some 23) that currently support his government represents an obstacle to efficient governance. He has named his new party Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and is calling on other parties in his coalition to dissolve and merge with it. Those that do not join would be asked to go their own way.

Not a monolith

The strategy could involve new risks for the president, however. The pro-Chávez movement is far from homogenous. His coalition includes traditional leftists such as the communists as well as less ideological, new parties. There are various factions within his own administration that have ideological and strategic differences with Mr Chávez. This has been evidenced by the chronically high rate of ministerial turnover in his government. The increased radicalisation of policy in Mr Chávez’s second term could result in more fractures in his support base.

His announcement of the creation of a single revolutionary party, along with his stated intention to remove constitutional limits on presidential re-election, have already brought murmurs of discontent among pro-Chávez politicians from smaller parties. These may be reluctant to give up their own power bases or, in some cases, renounce their own future presidential ambitions.

Among the older parties that support Mr Chávez are the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV), Patria para Todos (PPT) and Podemos. None has accepted Mr Chávez’s offer to merge as yet. While Mr Chávez’s MVR obtained 41.7% of the total votes in the presidential election, PCV, PPT and Podemos together obtained 14.5%. The remaining 7% came from supporters of around 20 smaller parties.

Rallying cry

The president’s latest moves will also be alarming to the opposition in Venezuela and to others in Latin America, and in Washington, who see his political model as a threat to democracy. The opposition, albeit badly beaten in the December election, will use the president’s push towards a virtual one-party state to bolster their contention that he is turning Venezuela into a second Cuba. Local opinion polls show a large majority of Venezuelans strongly dislike Cuba's system of government.

Though Mr Rosales and the other anti-Chávez leaders do not currently pose a significant threat to the president’s authority, they could, if they hang together, begin to constitute a more viable opposition movement than has existed in recent years. It would be led by, among others, by Mr Rosales’s own fledgling party, Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), and the centre-right Primero Justicia (PJ).

The opposition will have other issues to rally around. Among these are the Chávez administration’s costly petrodiplomacy and financial assistance to other leftist governments in Latin America, key issues raised in Mr Rosales’s campaign. And although Mr Chávez gets high personal popularity ratings and good grades for his government’s health and education programmes, as well as his food and other subsidies to the poor, his administration’s performance on issues such as crime, housing, unemployment and corruption has been rated poorly by a majority of the electorate.

Mr Chávez is clearly focused at present on taking political advantage of his electoral mandate to beef up his personal power and potentially extend his term in office indefinitely. He has said he wants to hold a referendum in 2007 to allow him to run for the presidency as many times as he likes, eliminating the current two-term limit.

Besides running the risk of alienating some partners, Mr Chávez could also be accused of neglecting some of the complaints of his own constituents. He would be wise, therefore, to also turn his attention to the need to improve security, provide productive employment, solve the massive housing deficit and punish rampant government corruption. If not, his popularity could erode and protests increase, and with them the prospects for political instability.

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